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Let the great Landry Jones debate begin

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If you're the kind of person who would ever read a mock draft — especially a mock draft floating around nearly a full year ahead of the draft it's ostensibly mocking — you didn't have to read any of the earliest efforts this week to project the 2012 class to know the name at the top of every one of them. The rest of the quarterback field behind foreordained No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, however, doesn't lend itself to quite as much certainty. And in the case of Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, the green remains a mile wide: Where some scouts see a big kid with big numbers at a big school on the verge of a big season and assume he's bound for the top five, others are wary enough to drop him into the middle of the first round, and still others don't even see him as one of the top five at his own position.

Obviously, that kind of speculation at this stage has no bearing whatsoever on where Jones will actually be picked next April, if he even decides to toss his hat into the ring with a year of eligibility remaining. But it does sum up the rest of 2011 for Jones in a nutshell: For the headliner of the team that's going to open the season at No. 1 in the preseason polls, Jones' virtues are still curiously dependent on the eye of the beholder.

Consider that Jones has started 24 games for Oklahoma over the last two seasons, during which he's led the Sooners to a Big 12 championship and BCS win and put himself in position this year, if he stays healthy, to obliterate the school passing record set by predecessor Sam Bradford. Based on the record books and the trophy cases, the only thing Bradford did in two seasons as the Sooners' starting quarterback that Jones hasn't done is win a certain hunk of bronze. When Bradford won the Heisman as a redshirt sophomore in 2008, he passed for 4,720 yards for a team that won the Big 12 championship, finished 12-2 and landed at No. 5 in the final polls; as a redshirt sophomore in 2010, Jones passed for 4,718 yards for a team that won the Big 12 championship, finished 12-2 and landed at No. 6 in the final polls. But where Bradford won a Heisman, Big 12 coaches didn't even see fit to put Jones on the all-conference team.

Whether you count that as a snub or a sober appraisal depends on what you see in Jones, which depends on what you want to see.{YSP:MORE} Again, on paper, his raw numbers were spectacular: He hung at least 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes on nine different opponents, including Florida State (380 yards, 4 TDs), Missouri (303 yards, 3 TDs), Colorado (453 yards, 4 TDs), Texas Tech (317 yards, 5 TDs), Oklahoma State (468 yards, 4 TDs) and UConn (429 yards, 3 TDs in the Fiesta Bowl); in three of those games, he did it before halftime. For the year, Jones led the Big 12 and finished second nationally in both categories, behind only Hawaii's Bryant Moniz.

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But that place clearly owes something to his abundant opportunities. Oklahoma ran significantly more plays than any other offense in college football, and Jones put the ball in the air more often than any other quarterback. (Though OU ultimately ran so many plays — 86.5 per game — that the run/pass ratio was still close to 50/50, and a lot of the passes weren't of the high-risk variety.) Only about a third of those attempts pass efficiency terms, Jones was well behind the elite.

It goes without saying that the numbers are going to be there, as long as he's healthy. But if Oklahoma is going to win a national championship after a decade of frustration, it won't be because Jones has broken a few records: It will be because he's banished all doubts that he's just a competent guy in an up-tempo system designed to exploit a defensively challenged conference. That can only happen if he continues to excel against the greater degrees of difficulty. Before the bowl game, Oklahoma saw four defenses that finished the season ranked in the top 30 nationally in pass efficiency D: Air Force (10th), Missouri (11th), Texas A&M (29th) and Nebraska (3rd). All four held the Sooners below 28 points, and Jones' touchdown-to-interception ratio — which was better than 5 to 1 in OU's other ten games — was a meager 6 to 4. Air Force and Nebraska played the Sooners within a field goal apiece; Missouri and A&M handed them their only losses — not by outgunning them in a shootout, but by preventing big plays and coming up with turnovers that kept yards from turning into points.

The prevailing assumption over the next few months is almost certainly going to be that Oklahoma's championship run hinges on improvement from a relatively middle-of-the-pack defense, which, yeah, would obviously represent a crucial step forward. That takes the offense's championship credentials for granted, though, when the running game and Jones' consistency against the tougher tests on the schedule are hardly givens. The numbers are going to be there at the end of the season, but the bigger goal — and the answer to Jones' place in a long line of great Sooner quarterbacks — is going to hinge on something else.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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